How innovative design is powering up Singapore’s digital government delivery

By Yogesh Hirdaramani

Melisa Chan, Senior Experience Designer at GovTech Singapore, shares how design is helping Singapore deliver digital government services more innovatively, from service centres that help empower citizens to mobile apps that broaden how students learn.

Melisa Chan, Senior Experience Designer at Singapore's Government Technology Agency (GovTech), uses design to improve digital service delivery. Image: Melisa Chan and Loh Zhide

Melisa Chan’s design journey has brought her from designing interiors for luxury mixed use developments and urban wayfinding and signage to designing physical and digital government services for citizens as Senior Experience Designer at Singapore's Government Technology Agency (GovTech). For this former DesignSingapore Council scholarship recipient, the experience of designing spaces has strong parallels with designing digital services to be user-friendly.


“You can design a space that makes sense from a bird’s eye view, but when you’re actually in the space, how do you use it? What makes it useful, productive, or pleasant?” she says.


“That’s my journey, moving away from building things to thinking about who the people inhabiting these spaces are,” she explains. Over her years of practice, she has moved away from the purely physical side of experience design towards using design thinking as a foundation for spurring innovation in service delivery, she explains.


In Chan’s current role as Senior Experience Designer, she leads designers and researchers in improving service delivery for residents in Singapore through design thinking, experience design, and service design. She shares with GovInsider how her unique experiences have influenced her work at GovTech, and how design can support the successful delivery of government services.


Redesigning service centres to better empower citizens


Currently, Chan’s team is working on the redesign of Singapore’s service centres, which aids less tech-savvy Singaporeans in accessing digital government services. 


They have conducted over 100 interviews with staff and citizens on the ground to better understand how people are engaging with the service centres. These interviews helped her team better understand the experience of citizens and staff in the service centre, how they use the services available, and whether the centre's offerings have been valuable to them.


“The service centres are doing a really great job at enabling citizens to transact with the government. But what if we nudge the core value to that to empowerment? How can we help them help themselves?” she asks.


“What we found was that citizens are very satisfied with the service and the staff are doing a great job… they really go out of their way to help citizens. Residents come in with insurance forms and other documents and they will still help them even if it’s not a government service,” she explains.


Even though the centres are succeeding at helping citizens use digital government services better, she shares that as such services gain popularity, the load on staff will continue to increase if citizens don’t have the courage to learn how to use these services on their own.


She explains that less tech-savvy citizens may feel afraid at the thought of trying out such services on their own due to barriers such as bad experiences with scam websites and a lack of understanding of digital terms like browsers.


Her team is currently working with the service centre operations team to encourage citizens to practice using digital services on their own. This aims to move the overall experience of the service centres towards one of empowerment, rather than that of assistance.


This would not have been possible without their exploratory process, she explains. Through their interviews and qualitative research, her team works to discover key trends on how spaces and tools are being used, and explore ways in which they can help improve the overall experience of such facilities.


Mobile apps to deepen educational experiences

GovTech's Experience Strategy & Design team has developed an image recognition app in partnership with the Ministry of Education (MOE) to help students deepen their understanding of various topics. Image: Melisa Chan and Loh Zhide

Previously, Chan worked with the Ministry of Education (MOE)’s Educational Technology Division and Information Technology Division to bring tech solutions into the classroom and make education more experiential and meaningful for students.


Their overall goal was to find ways to incorporate design-thinking and future-thinking approaches within the educational technology and information communications technology teams. 


Her team observed classes for three months and talked to students and teachers on the ground to develop insights into how students were using technology in the classroom and the current challenges teachers were facing.


Through their observations, they noticed a pattern of students not understanding that their experiences outside of school could also constitute forms of learning. They were not “joining the dots” between what they learnt inside and outside of the classroom, she says.


To better help teachers impart these lessons to their students, the teams developed a prototype of an image recognition app that students can use to analyse plants in the context of a variety of disciplines, from history to biology and home economics.


“Most schools have science gardens or something similar. The same object can mean different things to different teachers… Let’s say a pepper plant. A home economics teacher might explain how you might use it in local dishes. A history teacher might narrate the significance of the spice trade to our early economy, etc.,” she explains.


Building on their prototype, their team partnered with a forensic science applied learning programme at a secondary school to implement the app in a classroom setting. In the pilot programme, students used the image recognition app to understand the different ways they can analyse objects at a crime scene, from blood splatters to broken windows.


This helped them better understand how different professionals from forensic scientists to investigators and police officers might approach such a crime scene, she says.


Creating new opportunities for innovation work


Chan shares that these processes have helped her stakeholders understand their landscapes not just in the physical sense, but to also better understand the challenges people might be facing.


“We look at the issues on the ground, develop a general sense of what is happening now, and turn that into opportunities. It’s all about opportunity creation and getting stakeholders to see if there are different lenses through which they can view a situation,” she shares. 


“The best projects are when the situation is quite negative or people are stuck. We use the process to go, how might we look at this differently? Can we unblock different things to come up with a different outcome?”


She shares that her experiences have made her realise that Singapore’s public service is replete with people doing similar design and innovation work, and she hopes to build platforms to better connect these people together. Such design work is critical in supporting agencies to strive for more efficiency and more citizen-centric services, she shares.


The recent United Nations e-government survey highlighted the importance of citizen-centric design and co-creating citizen services with the input of citizens and the private sector. Design was spotlighted as one of three key enablers of successful digital government delivery.  


Thailand and Bangladesh are two such countries that have developed innovative ways of delivering digital services to the most vulnerable through partnering with neighborhood convenience stores and local shopkeepers, shared GovInsider previously


Also read: New GovTech report by Civica a must read for public sector trends